George Russell, like Lennie Tristano, is one of the unsung prophets of modern jazz. The theoretical innovations for which he has become known are suffused throughout this early small group session, released in 1960 by Decca and now reissued by Verve. Although it’s billed as a live record, the reissue essay by Kirk Silsbee lets the cat out of the bag: Russell (on piano) and his sextet made the album in the studio following a three-week stint at the Five Spot, so the title is figurative, not literal. Except for trombonist David Baker and bassist Chuck Israels, the players are fairly obscure, having been recruited by Russell from among his students at the Lenox School of Jazz: saxophonist David Young, trumpeter Alan Kiger ("Al Kiger" in the new liner listings), and drummer Joseph Gayle Hunt ("Joe Hunt"). There’s a cheeky little detail on the original back cover: Young, Kiger, and Baker are credited on "first alto sax," "first trumpet," and "first trombone," respectively.
The most astounding thing about this recording is Russell’s ability not only to synthesize, but also to expand and redefine, the bop and modal vocabularies of the day. On the bop side, Russell rewrites "Sippin’ at Bells" in a three-part harmony as dense and bitter as black coffee, then sets his soloists free on the up-tempo blues, throwing some stop-time hits in their paths to add some spice. The cutting edge of bop returns on the final track, John Coltrane’s "Moment’s Notice," a tune that at the time was hot off the presses, far from the familiar jam vehicle it is today. Navigating the crowded harmonies with an inspired ease, the group runs the tune in pretty faithful fashion, although Russell throws in some trademark voicings on the intro and the tag. Again, stop-time plays a prominent role in the soloing.
Russell’s modal sensibilities come through clearly on his original tune "Swingdom Come" and on "Dance Class," a piece by a then-unknown composer named Carla Bley. (Bley’s career would soon get another important boost by Art Farmer’s 1965 quartet with Steve Kuhn.) Some credit Russell, rather than Miles Davis, as the true originator of modal jazz. Whatever the case, this album makes certain that very shortly after the 1959 release of Davis’s Kind of Blue,
Russell was taking the new form to the next level of advancement.
Add the blues to bop and modalism and you complete the musical trinity that holds the album together. Not only on "Sippin’ at Bells," but also on David Baker’s "121 Bank Street" and a second piece by Carla Bley, "Beast Blues," Russell’s sextet demonstrates that the blues is infinitely malleable, applicable even in the most rarefied theoretical contexts.